Happinest Podcast

02: Reigniting the Spark in Your Marriage, with Donald Cole

How to Reignite the Spark in your Empty Nest Marriage by making positive “bids,” Listening without Criticizing and Creating Rituals of Connection.

Donald Cole is clinical director with the Gottman Institute, a Seattle-based couples counseling center. He also works with the institute’s research arm, which is known as the Love Lab. He’s a marriage and family counselor with three decades experience and has worked with more than 1,000 couples. He also trains therapists nationally and internationally. Don has a doctorate in ministry and is an ordained Lutheran pastor.

When I interviewed Don for my HappiNest book, we talked about how there is often a need to reignite the spark in a marriage after the marathon of child-rearing. The Gottman Institute’s research shows that that two-thirds of parents experience a significant marriage downturn when they are raising kids. Relationships tend to strain when couples develop kid-centric marriages that revolve around jam-packed schedules and leave little time for the romantic partner.

Many couples turn away from each other because they are weary and stretched in too many directions. They stop turning to each other to make positive “bids,” such as asking how the other is feeling. Successful couples turn toward each other and make bids for connection in 86 percent of their interactions, according to the Gottman Institute. Failing couples, on the other hand, turn toward each other just 33 percent of the time. Cole’s goal is to turn negative interactions between couples into positive ones.

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What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • A “bid” is an attempt to engage your partner—to start an engagement. If you are conscious and intentional about making bids and do it in a positive way, you can become much better at responding to your partner’s bids.
  • Rejecting a bid adds to an overall negative feeling in the relationship. Bid: “What a nice boat on the river.” Rejection: “That’s a dumb boat. We’ll never be able to afford a boat, not on your salary.”
  • Couples who are successful respond positively to their partner’s bids 86 percent of the time. Those with failing relationships only respond to each other’s bids 33 percent of the time. They often turn away or ignore bids.
  • Successful bids lead to more bids. Unsuccessful bids shut the other person down.
  • If you start a conversation harshly it is likely to remain negative 94 percent of the time. “Harsh start up”: “I’m really tired of how messy you are,” or “You always make us late!”
  • Engaging on a friend-to-friend basis is the bedrock of a successful couple. Try this: “Let’s talk about what we want to do together this summer!”
  • Empty nesters often struggle to adjust their bidding when the kids leave home. That’s because during the parenting phase conversations are often wrapped around the needs of the kids.
  • Negative responses to bids create a sense of emotional hurt, even if it’s unconscious, and can create a negative vortex and cycle of turning away. But you can reverse the downward spiral.
  • Create rituals of connection, which are times of bidding that you can count on. You might reserve ten minutes each morning for coffee and conversation to talk about your upcoming day instead of racing out the door.
  • Certain times of day are ripe for making positive bids, such as right before you leave the house, when you arrive home, and before you go to bed at night.
  • Supporting your partner in their goals and being curious about their pursuits bolsters the bond.
  • Listen to your partner’s reports of a bad day without chiming in with criticism. Never side with the person who is causing the stress: “A cop pulled me over today and he was so rude!” Bad response: “Well, you do drive too fast.” Don’t engage in the not-to-be-out-done mode: “You think your day was bad, mine was much worse!”

Donald Cole